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Little Girl Opens Big Bridge

Ellie Foley and grandmother Eileen at 75th Memorial BRidge anniversary in 1998 / photo

Fuzzy old freeze-frames

It's pretty fuzzy stuff -- copied from ancient film to a magnetic medium we used to call videotape. But one can clearly make out the massive middle span of the Memorial Bridge being floated into place. The newsreel shows a tiny girl with a big pair of sheers surrounded by men holding their hats. Although Eileen Foley's memory of the event was vivid back in 1998, the film has a memory of its own. A friend of mine ran the short sequence through a snappy digital editing system, then froze a few frames and turned them into computer files. Pulled away from her mother, posing with two governors, the fledgling politician reveals a hint of fear.

Had she seen the films?

"Sherm gave me a copy," the former mayor told me prior to the 75th anniversary ceremony, "but I'm not good at putting it in the VCR. I'm afraid I'll hit a button and burn it up."

So we sat there watching the tape, rarely viewed since the Roaring Twenties. Back before TV, almost before radio, Pathe News reached an estimated 3.5 million neighborhood movie-goers every week. There were far fewer onlookers when Ellie Foley cut the rededication ribbon with her grandmother back in 1998 as the bridge turned 75. There was a gentle cheer and a ripple of applause that drifted into the seacoast breeze. Then a brief parade of antique cars motored across the bridge. For a few seconds, the scene looked hauntingly like the 1923 Pathe newsreel that had moldered for decades on the shelves of the old library.

Since her 1923 debut, Foley told me, she has cut hundreds of ribbons in her lengthy political career. Yet she got a special kick out of this re-enactment.

Bridging communities

"I think the history we choose to tell, shows a great deal about the needs we have," Pridham said. "We invent our history as we need it, and what a wonderful metaphor this is -- a little child connecting two communities."

That's how potent pictures are. They help us see patterns. Pridham’s comments from a decade ago are even more relevant today when the Memorial Bridge may itself become nothing more than photos, films and memories. Some would rather see it go, replaced by a modern bridge or by nothing at all. The cost of preserving historic structures, some claim, is prohibitive. The cost of not preserving them, others believe, is greater still, because without memorials, memory soon fades.

"Today people want the Portsmouth facade, but without all the effort," Pridham said. "Communities are a lot of work. Like bridges, they take a lot of time to build and maintain. Eileen was always willing to do the work…How did she do it? How can we do it again?"

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has named the Memorial Bridge one of the 11 most endangered structures in America. Preservationists claim it is not just an historic bridge of steel, but a vital link between two of the oldest communities in the nation. I like to say it is our Brooklyn Bridge, our Eiffel Tower and our Statue of Liberty -- all rolled into one. And between the lines, it is also a symbol that, in America, a shy little girl in a melon-colored dress may just grow up to be the mayor.

Copyright (c) 2009 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved.

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